Every now and then, I come across an author whose work is radically different from what I’ve always thought. Whether the fault of the misunderstanding lies with my teachers or with myself I cannot tell, but it exists nevertheless, and an actual reading of the work shatters my misconceptions. I had this experience, for example, when reading Nietzsche for the first time: He is by no means the nihilist he is often made out to be; he doesn’t have an anti-Semitic bone in his body, and if his philosophy is destructive, it is a creative destruction that seeks to tear down only to build a new edifice.
I had the same experience a few weeks ago when reading Epicurus–who, I must say, I’d heard little about other than the term “Epicurean,” which is usually applied to an “eat, drink, and be merry” philosophy of hedonism. As is so often the case, our middlebrow slang gets it just right enough to be more distressingly wrong.
Epicurus himself is really more about virtue than about pleasure–the difference between his time and our own, however, is that the two were for him intimately connected. Like Aristotle, Epicurus views pleasure as the highest virtue, which is a hard thing for people in Christian and post-Christian cultures to understand. But for the Greeks, pleasure is in itself a good, “the first and natural good,” and all other goods must be judged in accordance with pleasure (129a). It’s because of his focus on pleasure that Epicurus is popularly considered an abject hedonist—a reputation that apparently existed in his own day (he mentions it in 131b).
But Epicurus ethic is not one of all-out hedonism, and if he advocates the quest for pleasure, it’s in a rather measured way:
Every pleasure is a good since it has a nature akin to ours; nevertheless, not every pleasure is to be chosen. Just so, every pain is an evil, yet not every pain is of a nature to be avoided on all occasions. By measuring and by looking at advantages and disadvantages, it is proper to decide all these things. (129b-130a)
He’s really advocating a kind of individual utilitarianism here—one must weigh out the greatest benefit to oneself and accept it, even if it means undergoing pain or forsaking pleasure momentarily. Pleasure is still the end goal, but you can’t attain pleasure by merely chasing after it every chance you get.
Indeed, Epicurus seems to suggest a kind of “aesthetic asceticism”—we should live as simply and quietly as we can, gaining pleasure from the small things instead of grabbing everything that comes our way. The reason, of course, is practical: We will be happier this way. As he puts it elsewhere: “Those desires that do not bring pain if they are not satisfied are not necessary; and they are easily thrust aside whenever to satisfy them appears difficult or likely to cause injury” (“Principal Doctrines”148). Again, this is a long way from abject hedonism.
I do not mean to suggest that Epicureanism is in any way compatible with the Christian life. Indeed, Epicurus’ philosophy anticipates nothing so much as the rationalism and scientism of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment; he holds to strikingly modern views of the natural world, including atomism and an early version of Gould’s non-overlapping magisteria, and the gods in which he apparently believes are far removed from human life. His argument for polytheistic deism is strange but elegant: “That which is blessed and immortal is not troubled itself, nor does it cause trouble to another. As a result, it is not affected by anger or favor, for these belong to weakness” (“Principal Doctrines” 139). Thus, the gods must be perfect and immovable. It’s very Aristotelian in the sense of the Unmoved Mover of the Metaphysics.
Science is mankind’s savior, says Epicurus, and is necessary for living the good life because
It is not possible for one to rid himself of his fears about the most important things if he does not understand the nature of the universe but dreads some of the things he has learned in the myths. Therefore, it is not possible to gain unmixed happiness without natural science. (143)
Science has value because it and it alone can rid society of harmful superstitions. Both what we moderns call philosophy and what we call science function to reduce the fear of death; in this sense philosophy is, as the old cliché puts it, “learning how to die.”
Much of the “Letter to Menoeceus” is concerned with death, and its on this topic that Epicurus deserves to be called a stoic. Indeed, he instructs his pupil to “Accustom yourself to the belief that death is of no concern to us, since all good and evil lie in sensation and sensation ends with death” (124b). I’m not sure this follows, though—aren’t we concerned with more than mere sensation? Isn’t the problem with death that it’s a cessation of existence, and isn’t that something worth taking seriously?
Indeed, Epicurus seems to treat death as a thing in itself, as opposed to the cessation of all things. He treats it as the polar opposite of human consciousness: “while we exist death is not present, and when death is present we no longer exist” (125). But I’m not convinced that’s an appropriate way to think about death—it’s nothingness, a black hole that sucks all life into it.
I do like one thing he says, though, and it fits in nicely with what Martin Heidegger calls “being-towards-death”: “Remember that the future is neither ours nor wholly not ours, so that we may neither count on it as sure to come nor abandon hope of it as certain not to be” (127a). This is sound advice, to be sure, even for Christians, who historically opposed Epicurus’ Roman disciples, causing the philosophy to go underground until the eighteenth century.
At any rate, Epicurus is worth a reading for at least two reasons. First, he is an excellent writer and a lot of fun to read. If you’ve ever slogged through Aristotle or the later Plato, you will appreciate a Greek philosopher who is relatively breezy. Second, whether the influence is acknowledged or not, he is a major forerunner of the nü atheism and a great deal of help in understanding the underlying assumptions of that movement.